August 3, 2017

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is "ramping up" his probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election by impaneling a grand jury in Washington, The Wall Street Journal reports. Federal prosecutors had previously impaneled a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, for their investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, but that probe has been absorbed by Mueller's team.

The D.C. location is closer to where Mueller's committee works and will more conveniently allow for subpoenaing documents or putting witnesses under oath. "This doesn't mean he is going to bring charges," former federal prosecutor Thomas Zeno told The Wall Street Journal, "but it shows he is very serious. He wouldn't do this if it were winding down." Special counsel to the president Ty Cobb said he hadn't known Mueller was using a new grand jury as such "matters are typically secret."

Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, added: "This is yet a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel. If there was already a grand jury in Alexandria looking at Flynn, there would be no need to reinvent the wheel for the same guy. This suggests that the investigation is bigger and wider than Flynn, perhaps substantially so." Read the full report at The Wall Street Journal. Jeva Lange

9:59 p.m.

President Biden is preparing to announce that the atrocities committed against Armenian civilians in the early 20th century were an act of genocide, officials familiar with the matter told The New York Times.

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire amid a systemic death march that began during World War I, historians say. Biden is expected to make his declaration on Saturday, the annual day of remembrance for the victims. Turkey has said Armenians were killed amid clashes with Ottoman forces, but denies that the death toll topped 1 million and a genocide occurred.

At least two dozen countries have recognized the killings as a genocide, and in 2019, Congress passed nonbinding resolutions doing the same, but no sitting U.S. president has explicitly referred to a genocide. Already, tensions are high between the U.S. and Turkey, with the countries clashing on everything from human rights to the situation in Syria. On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a reporter, "Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties. If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs."

Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian told told the Times on Wednesday that "recognition by the United States will be a kind of moral beacon to many countries. This is not about Armenia and Turkey. This is about our obligation to recognize and condemn the past, present, and future genocide." Catherine Garcia

8:24 p.m.

With a 51-49 vote, the Senate on Wednesday confirmed Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general.

As promised, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined the Democrats in voting for Gupta, who is now the first woman of color to serve as associate attorney general. In this role, Gupta is the No. 3 Justice Department official, after Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.

Gupta led the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, and Republicans accused her of having "radical" positions on topics like drug legalization and funding for police. Democrats fired back, saying her nomination was endorsed by several law enforcement organizations.

"We never have had a former civil rights attorney serving in such a position of prominence at the Justice Department," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "In that sense alone, Ms. Gupta would bring a long overdue perspective to our federal law enforcement agency." Catherine Garcia

7:36 p.m.

After a tough fall and winter, with record numbers of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in intensive care units and a high death toll, California now has the lowest coronavirus case rate in the continental United States.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows California's seven-day rate of new cases is 40.3 per 100,000 people, compared to the nationwide rate of 135.3 per 100,000 people. Hawaii is faring slightly better, at 39.1 cases per 100,000 people, while Michigan is continuing to struggle with a surge in cases and is seeing 483 cases per 100,000 people.

California is home to more than 39.5 million people, and over the last week, the state reported an average of 2,320 new cases per day, down 13 percent from two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. During the winter, there were more than 40,000 new cases being reported a day, and at the height of the surge, 600 deaths were recorded daily. Today, an average of 81 deaths are being reported a day, and the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital is at its lowest rate since last spring, the Times reports.

Californians are being urged to keep wearing masks, wash their hands, and social distance, and those measures, as well as an effort to quickly vaccinate residents, is helping matters. So far, 27 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the state, with 44 percent of Californians having received at least one shot and more than 25 percent fully vaccinated.

"All of the information currently available to us does indicate that our vaccines appear to be highly effective in preventing transmission, hospitalizations, and deaths, even with the increased presence of variants," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said on Wednesday. Read more at the Los Angeles Times. Catherine Garcia

5:36 p.m.

It's an honor just to be nominated … because you still get a goody bag worth six figures.

The Academy Awards are this Sunday, but no matter who gets a trophy, all Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, and Supporting Actor and Actress nominees get an unofficial "Everyone Wins" gift bag, courtesy Distinctive Assets.

According to Vogue Australia, highlights include: A three-night stay at a lighthouse in Sweden; a four-night stay at a luxury spa; a plastic surgery session; a PETA emergency hammer designed to save dogs from hot cars; a home renovation project; vape cartridges; vitamin IV infusions; and, because it's 2021, an NFT.

Big ticket items are accompanied by a plethora of down-to-earth gifts, like cookies, alcohol, and sweatpants. Thank god for the goody bags, how would celebs have been able to afford this stuff otherwise?

Read more at Vogue Australia and HelloGiggles. Taylor Watson

5:32 p.m.

Dave Bautista is playing Bane! And no, excuse you, it doesn't happen to matter that there are no upcoming Batman movies featuring the villain, nor that there aren't any plans to otherwise bring back the character made famous by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises.

"I want to play Bane so bad I went to Warner Bros., had an appointment with them, had an appointment with DC, walked in the door and said, 'I want to play Bane.' I'm not kidding," the retired wrestler said, reports Indiewire. Notably, that is, uh, not how that usually works. "They were a little like, 'Whoa, we're not even casting Bane,'" Bautista said. "I was like, 'I don't care, I'm playing him.'" Now that's manifesting.

Read more at Indiewire and Jezebel. Jeva Lange

5:15 p.m.

Gen. Arnold Bunch, the commander of the Air Force Material Command, announced Wednesday that Maj. Gen. William Cooley of the AFMC is headed to court-martial on a sexual assault charge. The decision marks the first time an Air Force general has faced such a trial, Military.com reports.

Bunch said "this was not a decision made lightly," but he believes it was the right call after reviewing "all of the evidence from the investigation" and a preliminary hearing.

Cooley, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, has been accused of making "unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a female victim," who is not a service member or Defense Department employee, in August 2018, Military.com reports. A charge sheet from last November obtained by Military.com provided more specific details about the off-duty incident, including the accusation that Cooley kissed the woman on the mouth without her consent. Read more at Military.com. Tim O'Donnell

4:10 p.m.

What is ... about time?

LeVar Burton has finally been tapped to guest host Jeopardy!, the game show announced Wednesday. The Star Trek: The Next Generation actor and former host of the beloved PBS children's series Reading Rainbow will step behind the lectern for one week beginning on July 26.

Jeopardy! has been making use of a series of rotating guest hosts following Alex Trebek's death, and for months, fans have been calling for Burton to be brought in. In fact, one petition urging the show to make him the new host drew over 245,000 signatures. It certainly made sense given he's known in part for an educational show, and in recent weeks, Burton has been making clear he was interested — not just in guest hosting, but in taking on the gig permanently.

"This is something that I really think is a good idea," Burton recently told USA Today. "I think it's a good fit of what the show is, what the show requires and what I feel like I bring to the table."

Burton's name was announced Wednesday as part of what Jeopardy! said would be the final group of guest hosts to finish its current season, the others being Good Morning America anchors Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, CNBC host David Faber, and sportscaster Joe Buck. This schedule takes the show up to August 13, around which point a permanent successor to Trebek could potentially be revealed.

So who might it be? Burton is a strong contender, though former champion Ken Jennings' guest hosting stint was also well received by fans, as was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers'. Like Burton, Rodgers has said he's interested in the permanent job. At the moment, CNN's Anderson Cooper is a few days into his two weeks as guest host, and emails leaked as part of the Sony hack suggested Cooper was interested in the job in 2014. We'll take "tough decisions" for $1,000. Brendan Morrow

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